Human Rights House Foundation welcomes the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of women human rights defenders and would like to thank the Special Rapporteur for the diverse initiatives undertaken to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on human rights defenders.

As highlighted by the Special Rapporteur in his report, women human rights defenders have played, and continue to play “a crucial role in advancing human rights”, they “have been at the forefront of social change throughout history”. They play a particular important role in conflict and post-conflict regions to protect and promote the rights of women and other vulnerable groups. However, there is a need to continue improving international standards aimed at the protection of women human rights defenders.

Despite the tremendous advancement in raising awareness and recognising their important role in the defence and enjoyment of human rights, women human rights defenders continue to face significant risks. They face specific violence, including verbal abuse and attacks on reputation – online and offline, and they are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violations, prejudice, exclusion, and repudiation than their male counterparts.

These violations can often take a subtle form. In Croatia, there are fears that women human rights defenders and their work are being systematically undermined and ignored by their government when it comes to developing legislation on reproductive health and rights.

Through cooperation with women human rights defenders working in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and the North Caucasus, we have witnessed smear campaigns in social media and hate speech against them as a punishment for challenging traditional gender stereotypes or being critical towards government.

A well known journalist in Azerbaijan, Khadija Ismayilova, was sent a letter threatening her with public humiliation if she did not stop her investigative reporting. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in January this year that the state failed to protect freedom of expression in her case, and recognize that there had been an unjustified and flagrant invasion into her private life. This case is typical of the general climate of persecution and impunity for acts against journalists critical of the government in Azerbaijan. It was also widely believed that this case highlighted a particular type of attack on a woman human rights defender that men would be much less likely to face in Azerbaijan.

We would like to echo the Special Rapporteur’s call upon states to “prioritize the protection of women defenders in online spaces and adopt laws, policies and practices that protect their right to privacy and protect them from libel and hate speech.”

It is not sufficient for States to adopt a gender perspective in their legal framework, they must go further.  Following a workshop organised by the network of Human Rights Houses, women human rights defenders issued a call to create a protection mechanism against the harassment of women human rights defenders.

Notwithstanding the hostile environment in which they work and the difficulties they meet, women human rights defenders are agents of change. They have made their mark on our common history, and they are inspiring a young generation of women and girls across the world, conveying hope, strength and courage.

One significant example of inspiring women HRDs is the “mother” of the Helsinki Movement, Liudmila Alekseeva who passed away at the end of last year: she dedicated her life to striving for change.  She used all means available, including through protest and negotiations, to hold state authorities accountable for upholding their international human rights commitments, risking her life at times.

Mr. Chairperson,

Following the 2018 celebration year, and building on this positive energy and excitement around the work of HRDs, we ask the Special Rapporteur the following:

  • What types of mechanisms he envisages states creating to better protect women human rights defenders?
  • Can he recommend how the Human Rights Council can better celebrate women human rights defenders as agents of change?

To preserve the strong and vibrant movement of women human rights defenders, we join the call of the Special Rapporteur upon “the international community to recognize the specific issues, challenges and risks that women defenders face in diverse circumstances and to ensure that such defenders are recognized and supported and enabled to participate equally, meaningfully and powerfully in the promotion and protection of human rights.”